Recently I was asked to contribute to a piece for The M Dash, the online magazine for clothing brand M.M.LaFleur, about what it’s like to feel lost at work at various stages in life. While my deepest area of expertise is coaching and training mid-career women who recognize they want and deserve a better, happier professional life, I’ve worked with hundreds of women and men across a fuller span of their lives, including recent grads, post-baby and later career. As we all know, people can feel seriously adrift in their careers at any and all of these stages. But each stage brings with it specific challenges and questions.
Below is a look at what contributes to feeling lost and confused in your career at three key stages of our lives, and some first steps to take to move beyond confusion into empowered action.
1. Recent Graduation
In just starting out, recent grads often feel lost in a number of critical ways. First, many feel that what they went to school for was something their parents and authority figures told them was the “stable, secure” choice, but in their hearts, they never enjoyed what they were studying or felt that it wasn’t aligned with who they are and what they care about.
When these folks graduate, they already feel like they’re behind many others who had a focused passion for what they studied and are thrilled about the possibility of doing work that leverages all that they learned.
Another way recent grads feel lost is that they may have studied something they loved, but now, in their efforts to land gainful employment, they find that what they learned in school, while interesting, just isn’t helping them get jobs. I’ve interviewed scores of young people who graduated from good schools, with great grades, and solid majors, only to discover that they couldn’t find a job to save their lives.
Thirdly, today’s workforce has become fiercely competitive, and recent grads often find that they’re behind the eight ball and not competing successfully with other young people who’ve already racked up impressive internships and other related work experience in the years before graduation. Without these internships or related work experience, many recent grads, especially in highly competitive fields, feel that their opportunities are very slim and they’re already falling behind their peers.
Another contributing factor—how you were raised
It’s a very common time to feel lost because we’re moving out of the teen phase where our parents have been very influential in our lives (and often too hands-on), doing so much for us. Here we are on our own, trying to handle adult responsibilities that, in many cases, we haven’t been properly trained or prepared for. We can feel at sea with all the steps we have to take to create new, successful adult lives.
Several years ago, I published an interview here on Forbes.com with leadership expert Tim Elmore in which he shared the 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children from Growing Into Leaders. Close to 8 million people have read this article and it has had viral reach, I think, because millions of parents are realizing that they are not helping their children grow up to lead their own lives authoritatively and confidently.
Tips: In a recent interview on my Finding Brave podcast, I spoke with Austin Belchak, Founder of Cultivated Culture, on How To Land a Dream Job at the Salary You Deserve. He shares his personal experience feeling totally lost after graduation. Austin studied science but when he left school, he simply couldn’t find a job, no matter what he tried. He decided to explore a new approach and went on to interview scores of other young people who had had very little work experience yet were able to land amazing jobs at the nation’s most coveted employers. Austin researched exactly how they did that, and in this research process, he learned so much. Austin eventually got a great job and also launched his own business helping other recent graduates do what’s necessary to find jobs of their dreams. It’s an inspiring story with great tips and strategies.
WHAT TO DO
Don’t go it alone
When we’re feeling lost, the very first thing is to reach out to someone who can help. This is true no matter what stage of life you’re in. Einstein said, “We cannot solve a problem on the level of consciousness that created it.” I know that if I had reached out for help back when I was just starting out, I wouldn’t have accepted the very first job that I was offered (which I didn’t want, and it set me on a trajectory of unhappy corporate life for 18 years).
When you’re lost and overwhelmed, don’t try to tackle the situation on your own. Find a mentor, a friend, a coach or coaching buddy, a therapist, someone who can help you address what you’re feeling and thinking, and help you see other perspectives and strategies to address what seems insurmountable.
Recognize your strengths and identify work outcomes you care about
Begin to do the work of recognizing what you’re great at (those natural talents and skills that have been with you for a long time and that you love to use). Explore different jobs that require those specific skills and talents. Secondly, know that, in order to succeed in your work, it’s not enough to do tasks you enjoy. You also have to feel good about the outcomes that you’re striving hard to achieve in your job. The company’s goals have to be aligned with what you care about and respect. If you’re working incredibly hard every day for outcomes that you don’t believe in, you won’t thrive.
Understand the culture that you’ll feel good in
Every organization has its own culture, “feel” and style. And not every individual will be a fit with those cultures. Take some time to identify the specific traits of work cultures that appeal to you and will be a strong fit with your values and personality. Then start to network extensively (and become a true connector) to help you identify and connect with organizations that you’d love to contribute to.
What I hear most often from women who are new mothers (and men who’ve become new fathers) and are feeling lost in their careers is this: the very process of having a baby has changed everything for them and made them rethink how they want to spend their time, and how they want to balance parenting with being an active and successful professional.
Childbirth is such a monumental experience that often leads us to rethink who we are in the world, and what matters most to us. Frequently, people experience a new sense of frustration and disappointment as they realize that they’re leaving their baby in the care of others while trudging off to do work they find meaningless, harmful or unsatisfying.
As time goes on and the children grow, the sheer challenge of balancing new and evolving parenting responsibilities with an already-full plate at work can lead parents to feel utterly lost an unable to cope.
Tips: Whenever we feel lost, it’s essential to take some time to get in closer touch with what we feel and think. It’s common to get flooded by our emotions and feel unable to see the possibilities in front of us, for taking control of our lives, making different kinds of choices, and honoring what we care about most. Take some time to simply be and adjust to this monumental change in your life, and to get to know yourself as this new person who has another important role in life to balance. Find some quiet time each day (even if it’s 5-10 minutes) to just allow yourself to think, feel and be quiet with yourself.
This will help you sort out what is causing the most distress or challenge right now. Is it that you don’t have enough time in the day to do what you need to? If so, it’ll be important to re-evaluate everything you’re trying to achieve, and start fiercely prioritizing what matters most. It’ll be important to stop being a perfectionistic overfunctioner and get more help where you need to).
For others, it’s that in the wake of just having a child, what they didn’t like about their careers is more glaring than ever. Explore all those feelings more deeply, and try to tease out the specific parts of your career and professional life that are no longer acceptable. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just decide on some small, doable steps you take to address what isn’t working.
I’ve worked with thousands of mid-life professionals, and so many of them are lost in a way that’s different from recent grads and younger adults. Commonly, they’ve spent 20+ years working so hard to build a career that they hoped would be satisfying and sustainable, often to find it’s neither of those things, and they have no idea what to do about it.
The challenge at this stage is that we often have a great deal to lose if we want to leave our old careers behind. Many people at this time in life have children who rely on them, expensive mortgages, credit card debt, student loans to pay off, and other responsibilities that make changing course at 40 very challenging. That feeling of “lost” can be extremely depressing and confusing. And they stay paralyzed.
I’ve discovered there are five core steps that anyone can take to help them out of that feeling of being lost and paralyzed. These steps are highly effective, and also prevent us from making costly mistakes as we try to discover what we really want out of life, and get on a more rewarding and successful path.
THOSE STEPS ARE:
- Step Back – for an empowered perspective of who you are, what you’re capable and what you’ve already accomplished that makes you valuable in the world. Watch my
- Let Go – of the thinking, patterns and behaviors that are keeping you stuck
- Say YES! – to your most compelling visions and dreams for your future and your life
- Explore – Try on – behaviorally, emotionally, and physically – with doable (risk-free) microsteps, the top three directions that excite you most, to help you determine if these new pathways will in fact be what you really want
- Create It S.M.A.R.T. – build a sound plan, with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound goals, and with an accountability structure, to help you move forward in ways that will get you to your goals.
The truth is, we can feel lost at any time in our lives when the way we’re living isn’t aligning with what makes us happy and what we believe is right for us. We can feel lost when our work has pulled us away from our core values and our sense of integrity and honesty. We can feel lost when we’re being mistreated and discriminated against. We can feel lost when our relationships change and we’re no longer with people we enjoy and respect. We can feel lost when our children grow up and leave us feeling empty and despairing because our life’s work has dramatically shifted. And we can feel lost when we’re experiencing what I’ve found to be the 7 most damaging power gaps that keep us from taking control and being powerful and effective authors of our own lives.
In all cases, reach out to someone to get outside help to see yourself and what you’re capable of more clearly. Gain awareness of (and honor) what you’re feeling and thinking and try to understand more deeply what is contributing to the challenges you face today. Then, start taking “finding brave” microsteps every day that will shift your life experience and mindset and give you proof that you can change what isn’t working, and transform your career and life in ways that are satisfying and joyful.